It is often said that there is no greater loss a human being can experience than that of their own child. Parents, after all, are supposed to pass before their offspring. It's the natural order of things, yet it doesn't always work out that way. An immensely difficult and emotional topic, to be sure, but it is one that, if not portrayed accurately on film, can easily come off as artificial, maudlin and exploitative. "The Greatest" gets it right. The film has some notable flaws and a slight hint of pretentiousness that suggest a first-timer is responsibleindeed, it is the writing and directing debut of Shana Festebut the drama at its core, exploring the grief, anger and despair that go with losing a person before their time, is never less than intimate and true.
On his last day of high school, Bennett Brewer (Aaron Johnson) is involved in a car accident and dies. His passenger, a rosy-cheeked classmate appropriately named Rose (Carey Mulligan), survives. Bennett's family is devastated, but while mother Grace (Susan Sarandon) outwardly falls apart, college professor father Allen (Pierce Brosnan) tries to be the stalwart one and hold things together. Meanwhile, troubled younger brother Ryan (Johnny Simmons) bottles up his feelings and begins attending teen grief sessions because he thinks that's what he is supposed to do. When Rose comes knocking on their door three months later with the news that she is pregnant with Bennett's baby and has nowhere else to go, Allen welcomes her into their dysfunctional home. Grace is immediately resentful of Rose, and it doesn't help that the lot of them had never known about her before the tragedy occurred. Indeed, Rose had only formally met Bennett hours before his death, the two of them reciprocally falling in love over their four years of high school, but with neither one getting up the nerve to talk to the other. Bennett finally does just that, but it's almost too late. As Rose tells Allen: "I think he may have been the love of my life, and I barely knew him."
"The Greatest" could be criticized for covering well-worn subject matterit reminds quite a lot of 2002's "Moonlight Mile
," which also starred Susan Sarandon as a grieving mother who has lost her childbut perhaps the best compliment to give it is that it never comes off as a weepy Lifetime movie. The acting and writing are too good to let that happen, and the common, not always spoken, truths that come with the story's tragic situation create a number of deeply moving moments. The most simplistic yet heartbreaking is an early sequence, played without dialogue, of Grace, Allen and Ryan riding away from the funeral site. This unbroken shot lasts close to two minutes in lengthlong enough for the quiet, the stillness, and the characters' ever so subtle body language to speak volumes about a loss all three are going through, but facing individually. Another scene of Grace waking up, remembering what has happened, and immediately breaking down in inconsolable sobs will also hit close to home for those viewers who have gone through something similar to Grace.
Four or five times throughoutmaybe morethe film is successful as a non-pandering tearjerker, the emotions deriving from a real place. What is less solid is the scene-to-scene narrative, feeling more like a series of snapshots rather than a fully dimensional depiction of the story at hand. Rose moves in with the Brewers, but there are few scenes where one gets a sense of what that dynamic is like and how she interacts with the different family members day to day. With time moving too fastmonths sometimes pass in a matter of minuteswriter-director Shana Feste also tosses in too many subplots that either go nowhere or are left open-ended. Ryan befriends Ashley (Zoe Kravitz), a fellow teen whose sibling has died, and the romance between them fizzles out the second a revelation is uncovered that Ashley has been hiding from him. It is also established that Allen has been having an affair with Joan (Jennifer Ehle), but again, nothing comes of it and it is hastily forgotten about. There are times when "The Greatest" frustrates with its unfocused wanderings, but it eventually pulls the viewer back with another good scene waiting in the wings.
Pierce Brosnan is having a red-letter year so far as he pulls further away from his James Bond action persona and takes on more interesting dramatic projects. He was outstanding in Roman Polanski's recent "The Ghost Writer
," made a strong impression in "Remember Me
," and is even better here as a father who is internally shutting down the longer he externally wears a brave face for the rest of his family. Expressive with only the faintest of movements, Brosnan beautifully underplays his role of Allen so that his inevitable breakdown makes all the more impact. As Grace, Susan Sarandon (2009's "The Lovely Bones
") is exquisite in an emotionally demanding part; she manages to bring uncommon strength to Grace even as the character questions if she will ever be able to move on with her life. Carey Mulligan (2009's "An Education
") effectively counterbalances the sadness within the Brewer home as Rose, a naturally hopeful young woman who is hurting in her own way by so quickly losing the person she felt as if she might spend the rest of her life with. Also delivering potent turns are Johnny Simmons (2009's "Jennifer's Body
"), hiding his own deep-seated regrets as Bennett's younger brother Ryan, and Michael Shannon (2010's "The Runaways
") as the badly injured man who hit Bennett's car and had the only contact with him in the seventeen minutes between the accident and his death.
"The Greatest" is a highfalutin title the film is not able to match, but there is little to no fault to be had with any of the committed performances therein. Even as the screenplay fails to delve deep enough into the relationships between Rose and the late Bennett's family members and loses sight a few times of the bigger picture as it piles on subplots, there is always something identifiable to connect with. The personal process each person must go through to deal with terrible loss in their life is wide and variedit is their ownbut the emotions are universal. "The Greatest" understands this, and treats it with the unsentimental toughness it deserves.